Roma Eterna is a classic "fix-up" or "mosaic" novel, which is a literary form well-suited to science fiction. It consists of ten independent stories, each set in a different era in Silverberg’s imagined history in which the western Roman Empire never fell, lasting into contemporary times. What is good about this format is that rather than being restricted to telling one story in one setting, the author is able to set stories throughout the entire created world, thus broaden the world-building without sacrificing plotting. Silverberg used that approach successfully in Majipoor Chronicles and employs it again here.
A "mosaic" novel is also an ideal format for alternate history, since it allows Silverberg to zoom in on a variety of key points where his history veers from the "real" history. Too many attempts at alternate history take some minor point of divergence and then tell a routine adventure or human interest story which has little to do with the historical divergence. That is not true in Roma Eterna where Silverberg’s main concern is examining his version of the Roman Empire, how it diverged from the real one, why it diverged, and what changes that engendered in historical events further down the line. Like most vintage Silverberg, Roma Eterna is not routine storytelling–although Silverberg is certainly one of science fiction’s best storytellers ever–but also speculations on how people adapt to specific historical development.
The first story "With Caesar in the Underworld" shows one of the crucial points of divergence in the year 1282 ab urba conditia–"from the founding of the city"–which corresponds with the mid-6th century A.D. The barbarians are threatening on the northern borders of the western empire, but Emperor Maximilianus is old and dying, and neither of his two sons seems qualified to assume the throne and fight back the expected barbarians incursion. An emissary of Justinianus, the Eastern Emperor, has recently arrived in Rome to negotiate the marriage of Maximilianus’ older son with Justinianus’ younger sister, in return for which the Eastern Emperor is expected to send troops to aid in the defeat of the barbarians.
Much of the story centers around Faustus, a mid-level Roman official, who has been given the task of escorting the emissary while the older son has fled to his northern estate for hunting in lieu of his responsibility negotiating. In his place, the younger son, also named Maximilianus, a noted wastrel and party-goer, escorts Faustus and the emissary into Rome’s notorious underworld.
"With Caesar in the Underworld" on its surface seems like a travelogue into the seediest parts of early-medieval Rome, but beneath that it examines the transfer of power and how important a role the quirks of chance played in the survival of the Roman Empire.
Religion was a major factor in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, both Christianity in the Western Empire and Islam in the Eastern Empire. While Silverberg eliminated Christianity quickly in the Prologue, "A Hero of the Empire" is the story of Mohammed and why he does not become a factor in Silverberg’s alternate Roman Empire.
"The Second Wave" moves to the early 12th century A.D. (A.U.C. 1861) when his Roman Empire enters the Age of Exploration. This is somewhat earlier than in our history, but since the Dark Ages did not occur in Roma Eterna, it is a logical assumption that much of post-medieval history would have moved up. This is the story of the first meeting between European conquistadors and the empires of Peru and Mexico. Since Silverberg’s Roman forces encountered the New World armies much earlier, when their empires were still strong, his results are considerably different than happened in our world. This story is a perfect example of how using the "mosaic" format deepens the alternate history considerably.
"Getting To Know the Dragon" is the story of an 18th century historian (our dating) who is writing a history of one of the greatest Roman emperors whom he practically worships. When he is fortunate to discover the emperor’s personal journal, we see how difficult it is to admire somebody unconditionally who lived centuries earlier and whose philosophy and ethical beliefs so differ from our own. This story is recommended reading for people who blithely reject heroes from centuries ago because of their failure to have adopted 21st century values in their own lives.
"The Reign of Terror" takes place during a period when a series of incompetent and insane emperors created a situation very similar to France in the late 18th century (our dating), and a First Consul named Torquatus begins a series of moves similar to the French Reign of Terror destined to "save" Rome, but which actually drive the empire closer to dissolution. Silverberg is unable to tell a story without some thought-provoking premise, and here he shows two men driven by noble motives drift into evil without realizing what they are actually doing.
"Via Roma" moves into recent times, when Italy has developed its own identity independent of the Roman Empire and, in fact, all the component parts of the empire have done the same, including developing their own languages. Reading this story, I could definitely see modern Naples. This is the story of 19th century nation states, during which monarchies either fell or became mere figureheads. "Via Roma" also shows us the excesses caused by inherited wealth and the inevitable fate those excesses lead to.
"Tales from the Venia Woods" is the first Roma Eterna story I recall reading many years ago, and I wonder if it might have been the first story written, intended as a meditation on the fate of overthrown monarchies and those few relatives who somehow manage to survive the killing of all their relatives. It is a sad, contemplative story reminding us that what one man considers evil another man might consider necessity.
The book ends with "To the Promise Land," the story of the Jews whose exodus from Egypt was foiled three thousand years ago, and who have stewed under the Egyptians for centuries until a small group of radicals plan a new Exodus. The details of that exodus are concealed from the reader for much of the story, but I had glanced at the cover of the book before reading it, which is a spoiler to the secret of the last story. Still, it was a strong story about the need of people to determine their own fate.
Overall, Roma Eterna was vintage Silverberg, making me appreciate even more a man who after 50 years is still among the top writers in the field. Hopefully he will drift back to writing fiction as he has done the last two times he retired from it.